Elite: It’s Such A Dirty Word

Why are we so uptight about elites? In the run up to last month’s Knowledge Wave conference both main parties worried that it would be an “elite affair”. It was.
For the Labour party this was standard fare. “Elitism” and “elite capture” are dirty words. They somehow disparage the contemporary PC version of the “working man” – though Labour’s own upper reaches are stuffed with members of the caste.
National, on the other hand, might be expected to approve of elites. Excellence has place in the Party’s ideology and it tries to entice such people to stand as candidates. But no. National, too, respects the long-held anti-elitist tradition.
Both parties believe that to be considered elitist alienates middling New Zealand and to be 40 percent-plus party then politicians must solicit the middle.
It is not that the middle spurns all elites. TV micro-starlets are gushed over and sports “stars” too are permitted. The first presumably qualify because their vacuity keeps them “middle-ish”, even if slim and flashy. The second are retained on tight leash, to be cut down to size the moment they perform badly in competition. This view equates elitism with snobbism.
A healthier view equates elitism with excellence. And if New Zealand is to succeed in the information age, now entering new and more discombobulating stage with the boom in biotechnology, it will need lots of excellence.
Elites do the original thinking, produce the ground-breaking research, turn theory into reality and make the rest of us richer – in money, in pleasure, in our environment.
The old adage about humans and insects applies: elites can do without the people – witness the hundreds of little firms that operate internationally and generate income, needing only certain level of local services to keep them going – but the people can’t do without elites.
But there is one thing elites can’t do, at least not by themselves. They can’t make and remake national choices. For that, there must be consensus. And for that the elite need the people.
In the 1940s, after 15 years of economic depression and war, clear national choice was made for personal and social security.
There were some dissenters and the National Party vowed in the 1949 election campaign to bring back free enterprise. In fact, governments of both stripes stuck faithfully to the national prescription. Security was the prime guide for policy.
There was, of course, cost in economic growth, as most command economies found by the 1980s. And eventually there was rebound cost in personal and social security.
In the 1980s the political, bureaucratic and business elites flipped the policymaking coin over and gave primacy to economic imperatives. This improved economic performance – in the 1990s our per capita growth was about the OECD average (though we slipped in comparative terms because our currency slid off the shelf in the late 1990s).
But the people disagreed with the elites. The elections of the 1990s attempted to register that disagreement and in 1999 they finally succeeded.
But where does that leave us? With the 1940s’ national choice in tatters. The health system and tertiary education are underfunded. Many depend on state charity. Personal security has deteriorated.
Moreover, many of the moves promised in 1999 and carried out since have run counter to the economic imperative of higher growth, necessary to fund security measures.
Fifty years ago, it was believed an economy could be sealed off and taxes adjusted to meet the social imperative. Now, with the information revolution folding national economies into one big swirling international economy (as the industrial revolution folded local economies into national economy), tax ceilings are effectively set by forces beyond the control of individual governments.
So putting the 1940s back together again is chimera. The world has changed, is changing and will continue to do so.
The poser for the elites now is how to most effectively respond with new policy. Clipping on some poorly funded measures to encourage research, innovation, startups and selected large investments by foreigners, while also boosting social services, the arts and the environment falls well short of the quantum leap required.
For that quantum leap, there must be national consensus or it will simply unravel. Leading new national choice is this Government’s task as it heads toward second term.

Colin James, Synapsis Ltd, P O Box 9494, Wellington, New Zealand Ph (64-4)-384 7030, Fax (64-4)-384 9175, Mobile (64-25)-438 434 Webpage:www.ColinJames.co.nz, Email:[email protected]

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